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After Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rican Women Embrace Their Natural, Curly Hair

Gerlin Santos cuts Lisney Santiago's hair at Laura Om Studio in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Saturday. Santos left her curls natural four years ago and is the only one in her family who quit straightening her hair. For Santiago, 21, leaving her curls has given confidence. "It even gives me more security in myself; it makes me unique. I like it," Santiago says.
Gerlin Santos cuts Lisney Santiago's hair at Laura Om Studio in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Saturday. Santos left her curls natural four years ago and is the only one in her family who quit straightening her hair. For Santiago, 21, leaving her curls has given confidence. "It even gives me more security in myself; it makes me unique. I like it," Santiago says.

Early on Saturday morning, business at Laura Om's salon on Calle Loiza in San Juan, Puerto Rico is booming. Hurricane Maria, in a roundabout way, has something to do with that.

Om specializes in styling curly, natural hair — something that Puerto Rican women often go to great lengths to straighten with strong chemicals and hair dryers.

Eight months after the hurricane, it appears that Hurricane Maria — and the subsequent power and water outages — created a new market for Om's skills.

After the storm, many Puerto Ricans didn't have electricity to blow dry their hair. According to Om, "A lot of people decided, I'm not gonna deal with that anymore."

Many have embraced the change.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, many business owners on the island had hard decisions to make. Could they afford to rebuild? And was it even worth it?

Three weeks after the storm, one of Om's other businesses, a restaurant, flooded again with "agua negra" — dirty runoff and backed up sewage. She was unsure whether the restaurant would survive. But she was determined not to lose her salon.

"Even if it has to be in the backyard," she told NPR then. She knew that recovery would take time, but, she said, "I do a very specific work, and I want to influence Puerto Rican hairstylists."

Gerlin Santos (left) and Cristina Gandia (right) dye Lisney Santiago's hair at OM Studio in San Juan.
/ Erika P. Rodriguez for NPR
Gerlin Santos (left) and Cristina Gandia (right) dye Lisney Santiago's hair at OM Studio in San Juan.

Today, Isis Berreal, 48, is happy with her "new" hairdo. She went curly after the hurricane — a big departure from her usual look.

"Plancha todo el tiempo — como desde los treinta años," Berreal says. She has flat-ironed her hair since she was 30 years old.

Om says straightened hair is a cultural norm that has been reinforced on the island for a long time. Many of her customers had been getting their hair straightened since they were young girls. When they came to her salon after Hurricane Maria, Om says, they didn't even know what their natural hair looked like.

Many Latina and Caribbean women are made to believe from a young age that "if you don't have straight hair, you're not well put together," Om says.

That view is starting to change.

"I'm very happy that I can help young girls love themselves the way they are, and it's not always easy," Om says. "A lot of times it's harder to wear your hair natural, but we help them get there. And we are mixed so we have to embrace that. We have to be happy with that."

Arielys Vazquez (from left), Andrés Pacheco Báez and Lisney Santiago show off their haircuts at OM Salon.
/ Erika P. Rodriguez for NPR
Arielys Vazquez (from left), Andrés Pacheco Báez and Lisney Santiago show off their haircuts at OM Salon.

Sitting on a chair next to a wall of hair products, Oscar Seary watches sports on his phone while his wife gets her hair done.

Seary says that before the hurricane, she straightened her hair.

"She's a businesswoman, so that's the kind of style they use," he says. "But she had curly hair when we met, so I'm glad she got her groove back!"

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bits of a haircut lie on the floor before being swept up at OM Studio. NPR interviewed owner Om a few weeks after Hurricane Maria hit. "I can't leave the island. I love this place and my clientele is here," she said. Now business is booming at the salon.
/ Erika P. Rodriguez for NPR
Bits of a haircut lie on the floor before being swept up at OM Studio. NPR interviewed owner Om a few weeks after Hurricane Maria hit. "I can't leave the island. I love this place and my clientele is here," she said. Now business is booming at the salon.